WASHINGTON ― When U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly was elected to chair the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in November, the new role harkened back to one of the congressman’s earliest jobs in Washington.

Though the Virginia Democrat is primarily known for chairing the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, which oversees cybersecurity, his early days in Washington were spent as a staffer on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations from 1979 to 1989 — during the era when then-Sen. Joe Biden chaired the panel.

Defense News caught up with Connolly ahead of NATO’s June 14 summit in Brussels — its first summit since one of the alliance’s prime critics, U.S. President Donald Trump, left office.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

After years of President Trump’s skepticism about NATO, how will the alliance turn the page, and what’s on the agenda for the June 14 meeting?

One item I believe must be on the agenda — and I’m going to continue to press forward — is the issue of commitment to our common democratic values. We have an alliance [that is] 70 years old that’s done a great deal about collective security and says it’s committed to democratic institutions, but there’s nothing in terms of our architecture that reflects that. I’m very pleased the experts looking at the NATO 2030 strategic concept embraced my recommendation to create a center for democratic resilience within NATO itself. Democracy is the reason for our existence and distinguishes us from the authoritarian counter-models being propounded. We need to have a center within NATO that elevates an issue on an equal part of collective security. Otherwise, we just become another military bloc.

How would the NATO 2030 concept put the alliance on a new footing with regard to China and Russia? How can it be made more effective?

It’s a whole new world of threats compared to what we were facing say 70 years ago, or even 25 years ago. Cyberthreats are now ubiquitous and very threatening. We have to develop strategies and technologies to counter them because they’re aimed not only at infrastructure, but democratic institutions themselves ― undermining elections, disinformation campaigns ― which are being propounded by malign actors with state support using a technology that is now — that didn’t exist 25 years ago — that is now ubiquitous. We have to counter that.

The rise of China: If you look at NATO documents, China isn’t even acknowledged as an entity until about four or five years ago. It’s astounding. Here’s a country that is poised to eclipse the United States, with the world’s largest gross domestic product, the largest navy in the world, the largest armed forces in the world, and it is pursuing hegemony.

It is encroaching on the territorial waters of its neighbors in the South China Sea. Its aggressive pursuit of its interests through the One Belt, One Road Initiative brings it to the borders of the NATO alliance itself. In the southern Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Arctic, China is extending its influence. It’s founded multilateral development banks. It’s aggressively pursuing clients in both Africa and South America. It’s even engaged in vaccination diplomacy.

We need to compete with China and recognize the potential threat because China is a one-party state that has done everything you can to suppress democratic instincts among its own people. We’re seeing aggressive moves about Taiwan, and Hong Kong is a set piece for what would happen to a democratic society under Chinese rule.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly also needs to understand the new threats from an aggressive, assertive, grievance-filled Vladimir Putin, [Russia’s president]. Russia has troops and surrogates in three European countries, including Georgia and Ukraine, which are both NATO aspirants, and parts of Moldova. It has illegally annexed lands in Crimea, which we will never recognize ever, no matter how long that takes. It’s playing around in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus, and it’s constantly encroaching on the airspace of the Baltic republics.

Russian paratroopers wait to load onto a plane for airborne drills during maneuvers in Taganrog, Russia, on April 22, 2021. (AP)
Russian paratroopers wait to load onto a plane for airborne drills during maneuvers in Taganrog, Russia, on April 22, 2021. (AP)

How important is it NATO make explicit that China is a strategic rival? With China as a major trading partner for some European countries, are there nations that are less inclined to use strong language with Beijing?

Of course there will be. But I will remind you that having an economic relationship with the country does not preclude a military or political rivalry. At the very height of the Cold War, many NATO members had fairly strong economic ties with the Soviet Union. That didn’t preclude Norway from being a staunch NATO member and deeply committed to the alliance’s goals. But if you look at NATO documents decades ago, China wasn’t even a thought, and that does not reflect reality. I’m not looking for a new Cold War with China, but President Xi Jinping is aggressively pursuing China’s interests at our expense. He wants to undermine Western liberal democracies and values, and we need to recognize that and prepare ourselves accordingly.

A contentious issue during the Trump years was the goal for NATO members to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. What’s the willingness to revisit that target and modify it? Should Germany and others face continued pressure?

All of the NATO members took a pledge seven years ago in Wales to meet the target of 2 percent, and most of NATO still has not met it. And that was considered kind of a minimal, not a maximal goal to revitalize, replenish the NATO alliance, and to make sure that our allies have a fair share of the burden. And that remains absolutely a commitment and a goal, and one I believe the United States will continue to press.

One threat we need to face as democratic societies is backsliding among members and internal extremist threats to democracy itself. Those extremist elements exist in a large number of NATO nations, including the United States, as we witnessed Jan. 6 [during the Capitol riot].

How will the 2 percent target discussion change?

How will it be different than Trump? First of all, the context is radically different. You have this president of the United States, maybe the most Europeanist, trans-Atlantic advocate in the Oval Office who’s ever been there since the founding of NATO under President Harry S. Truman: Joe Biden sat for 36 years as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was chairman of the European Affairs subcommittee, he interacted with NATO constantly and he is a passionate advocate of the alliance.

Contrast that was his predecessor, who was a critic, who raised questions about the viability of the alliance itself and then wanted to sort of pound people into submission rather than invite them to meet their commitments in the context of full American support. The contrast and context could not be more radically different. My hope is that [NATO members will] understand that by not meeting commitments, they can unwittingly contribute to disillusionment with the alliance here in the United States.

So it doesn’t hurt America’s credibility to say we’ve got problems? It says ‘We have problems just like you and we want to address them’?

I would put it a little bit differently. The reaction of NATO , when we experienced the insurrection on Jan. 6, was that if it can happen in the United States, it can happen to me too. We need to take the far-right, violent-extremist elements in our societies far more seriously. They’re embedded in military, in law enforcement, and some of them are embedded in legal professions and in academia. They are preaching the violent overthrow of democratic governments.

U.S. and NATO officials said they will provide standoff support for Afghanistan. You’ve expressed skepticism about the withdrawal there. What will that U.S. support look like?

Presumably there’d be some kind of ongoing American military advice and consultation, and likewise maybe NATO. Whether that can materially affect events on the ground remains to be seen. I agree with President Biden: We can’t forever be engaged in what is already the longest war in American history.

My concern is with what we leave behind. There are a lot of people who collaborated with us, who counted on us for security and protection. With our withdrawal, that security and protection is under dire threat, especially for women, but also interpreters, people in the government, elected officials — and we’ve already seen a pattern of assassination. They’re at enormous risk, and we have an obligation to them. I am concerned that our goal seems to be, preeminently, to extricate ourselves at last; and I understand that, and I’m not unsympathetic with that, but we have obligations. I want to know how we’re going to meet those obligations.